A DAUGHTER OF THE PICTS
The Cuif put his hands in his pockets as if to keep them away from the dangerous temptation of touching Meg. He stood with his shoulder against the wall and chewed a straw.
‘What's come o' Maister Peden thae days?’ asked Meg.
‘He's maist michty unsettled like,’ replied Saunders, ‘he's for a' the world like a stirk wi' a horse cleg on him that he canna get at. He comes in an' sits doon at his desk, an' spreads oot his buiks, an' ye wad think that he's gaun to be at it the leevelang day. But afore ye hae time to turn roon' an' get at yer ain wark, the craitur'll be oot again an' awa' up to the hill wi' a buik aneath his oxter. Then he rises early in the mornin', whilk is no a guid sign o' a learned man, as I judge. What for should a learned man rise afore his parritch is made? There maun be something sair wrang,’ said Saunders Mowdiewort.
‘Muckle ye ken aboot learned men. I suppose, ye think because ye carry up the Bible, that ye ken a' that's in't,’ returned Meg, with a sneer of her voice that might have turned milk sour. The expression of the emotions is fine and positive in the kitchens of the farm towns of Galloway.
‘Swish, swish!’ steadily the white streams of milk shot into the pails. ‘Jangle, jangle!’ went the steel head chains of the cows. Occasionally, as Jess and Meg lifted their stools, they gave Flecky or Speckly a sound clap on the back with their hand or milking-pail, with the sharp command of ‘Stan' aboot there!’ ‘Haud up!’ ‘Mind whaur yer comin'!’ Such expressions as these Jess and Meg could interject into the even tenor of their conversation, in a way that might have been disconcerting in dialogues conducted on other principles. But really the interruptions did not affect Ebie Farrish or any other of the byre-visiting young men, any more than the rattling of the chains, as Flecky and Speckly arranged their own business at the end devoted to imports. These sharp words of command were part of the nightly and morningly ceremony of the ‘milking’ at every farm. The cans could no more froth with the white reaming milk without this accompaniment of slaps and adjurations than Speckly, Flecky, and the rest could take their slow, thoughtfully considerate, and sober way from the hill pastures into the yard without Meg at the gate of the field to cry: ‘Hurley, Hurley, hie awa' hame!’ to the cows themselves; and ‘Come awa' bye wi' them, fetch them, Roger!’ to the short-haired collie, who knew so much better than to go near their flashing heels.
The conversation in the byre proceeded somewhat in this way:
Jess was milking her last cow, with her head looking sideways at Ebie, who stood plaiting Marly's tail in a newfangled fashion he had brought from the low end of the parish, and which was just making its way among young men of taste.
‘Aye, ye'll say so, nae doot,’ said Jess, in reply to some pointed compliment of her admirer; ‘but I ken you fowk frae the laich end ower weel. Ye hae practeesed a' that kind o' talk on the lasses doon there, or ye wadna be sae gleg wi't to me, Ebie.’
This is an observation which shows that Jess could not have eaten more effectively of the tree of knowledge, had she been born in Mayfair.
Ebie laughed a laugh half of depreciation, half of pleasure, like a cat that has its back stroked and its tail pinched at the same time.
‘Na, na, Jess, it a' comes by natur'. I never likit a lassie afore I set my een on you,’ said Ebie, which, to say the least of it, was curious, considering that he had an assortment of locks of hair—black, brown, and lint-white—up in the bottom of his ‘kist’ in the stable loft where he slept. He kept them along with his whipcord and best Sunday pocket knife, and sometimes he took a look at them when he had to move them in order to get his green necktie. ‘I never really likit a lass afore, Jess, ye may believe me, for I wasna a lad to rin after them. But whenever I cam' to Craig Ronald I saw that I was dune for.’
‘Stan’ back, ye muckle slabber! said Jess, suddenly and emphatically, in a voice that could have been heard a hundred yards away. Speckly was pushing sideways against her as if to crowd her off her stool.
‘Say ye sae, Ebie?’ she added, as if she had not previously spoken, in the low even voice in which she had spoken from the first, and which could be heard by Ebie alone. In the country they conduct their love-making in water-tight compartments. And though Ebie knew very well that the Cuif was there, and may have suspected Jock Forrest, even after his apparent withdrawal, so long as they did not trouble him in his conversation with Jess, he paid no heed to them, nor indeed they to him. No man is his brother's keeper when he goes to the byre to plait cows' tails.
‘But hoo div ye ken, or, raither, what gars ye think that ye're no the first that I hae likit, Jess?’
‘Oh, I ken fine,’ said Jess, who was a woman of knowledge, and had her share of original sin.
‘But hoo div ye ken?’ persisted Ebie.
‘Fine that,’ said Jess, diplomatically.
‘But tell us, Jess,’ said Ebie, who was in high good humour at these fascinating accusations.
‘Oh,’ said Jess, with a quick gipsy look out of her fine dark eyes, ‘brawly I kenned on Saturday nicht that yon wasna the first time ye had kissed a lass!’
‘Jess,’ said Ebie, ‘ye're a wunnerfu' woman!’ which was his version of Ralph's ‘You are a witch.’ In Ebie's circle ‘witch’ was too real a word to be lightly used, so he said ‘wunnerfu' woman.’
He went on looking critically at Jess, as became so great a connoisseur of the sex.
‘I hae seen, maybes, bonnier faces, as ye micht say—’
‘Haud aff, wi’ ye there; mind whaur yer comin’ ye muckle senseless nowt!’ said Jess to her Ayrshire Hornie, who had been treading on her toes.
‘As I was sayin', Jess, I hae seen—’
‘Can y no unnderstan’, ye senseless lump?’ cried Jess, warningly; ‘I'll knock the heid aff ye, gin ye dinna drap it!’ still to Hornie, of course.
But the purblind theorist went on his way: ‘I hae seen bonnier faces, but no mair takin', Jess, than yours. It's no aye beauty that tak's a man, Jess, ye see, an' the lassies that hae dune best hae been plain-favoured lassies that had pleasant expressions—’
‘Tell the rest to Hornie gin ye like!’ said Jess, rising viciously and leaving Ebie standing there dumfounded. He continued to hold Hornie's tail for some time, as if he wished to give her some further information on the theory of beauty, as understood in the ‘laich’ end of the parish.
Saunders saw him from afar, and cried out to him down the length of the byre,
‘Are ye gaun to mak' a watch-guard o' that coo's tail, Ebie?—ye look fell fond o't.’
‘Ye see what it is to be in love,’ said John Scott, the herd, who had stolen to the door unperceived and so had marked Ebie's discomfiture.
‘He disna ken the difference between Jess hersel' an' Hornie!’ said the Cuif, who was repaying old scores.
the lilac sunbonnet
First serialised in The Christian Leader, 1894.